“Heavy is the head which wears the crown.” That’s how the saying goes, a saying which, like many, is a mutated version of how Shakespeare actually wrote it and today used by all manner of folks, including rappers like Stormzy. That’s because it can apply to many people and many things. When you are at the top of your game or the best at what you do, two things are certain: it’s up to you to maintain standards, and if you don’t someone will come for you.
No one needs to explain to Volkswagen the meaning of the phrase. I also need not explain the historical significance of the Golf GTI, the hot hatch which birthed one of the most exciting genres of cars way back when flares were still in fashion and a small tech start up called Apple was operating from Steve Jobs’ garage. In a way being the first means you are best by default, you wear the crown at its shiniest. At least you do for a little while. When other manufacturers saw the enthusiasm with which drivers embraced VW’s powerful hatchback they too wanted a slice of the action, and Volkswagen’s head quickly began to grow heavy.
Four and a half decades later and there’s a queue of hot hatches stretching from France to Japan via Germany, the UK and Korea looking to take a pop at the champ. The big question is, as the eighth generation of the Golf GTI is now here, is it still king?
As with any new Golf GTI, the changes represent evolution rather than revolution. It’s still powered by a 2-litre, 4-cylinder turbocharged lump, except now it produces 242bhp, which is the same power as the Mk7.5’s Performance Pack version. And there’s 370Nm of torque. All the power is sent to the front wheels, as it should be with a hot hatch, and it’s available with a six speed manual or with VW’s seven speed DSG gearbox.
On the road the GTI is composed and biddable, with its 6.3 second 0-62mph time offering snappy performance but nothing intimidating. This generation of GTI feels the most accomplished in its approach to getting the power down, helped in no small way by the fact the car we were sent came with the auto ‘box. The lungs fill quickly, with strong pull from around 2,000rpm, and it doesn’t run out of breath. The Honda Civic Type R outguns the GTI to the tune of 74bhp, but where the Civic Type R revs with abandon and crescendos its power later in the band, the GTI has a smoother, more linear delivery which makes for a more civilised on-road experience.
It’s worth pointing out that the Civic Type R is comparable on price with the GTI, and in many ways offers more car for the money: it’s sharper, with a stiffer chassis and a high-revving engine calibrated for track attacks, and it has aero for days. And the Type R is useable for the day to day, just about. But it’s not as refined as the GTI and even though the VW offers less value for money for those who want the best possible performance from their hot hatch, these cars are actually in different sub-categories of the segment. The GTI is, and always had been, a great all-rounder. It’s the car you can drop you granny off at bingo in without her complaining about her dentures coming loose, then light up on a country road on the way home for some fun. Plus the Type R looks like it was designed by a 14 year old kid, so there’s that.
The level of composure offered by the engine is matched by the way the GTI handles. It shifts weight with a light footedness not found in the Ford Focus ST. For this generation the springs have been stiffened (5% at the front, 15% rear), which accounts for its improved willingness to change direction, but there’s still bundles of mechanical grip underneath. What our car did not come with was the optional adaptive dampers, which cost around £1,000 extra to fit. It’s a shame, because I expect they would be well worth the extra money after sampling them in the Audi S3. The GTI now comes as standard with something called the Vehicle Dynamics Manager (VDM) which automatically tempers variables like drivetrain and steering up to 200 times per second, depending on the driver’s style and road conditions. When married to the adaptive dampers it’s easy to feel the VDM at work through the car’s fluid adaptations to what you ask of it, but without the dampers I couldn’t really tell how it was helping.
My affection for the Mk8 GTI is less brimming when it comes to the styling. I don’t enjoy the LED-encrusted splitter, and I hate the 18-inch ‘Richmond’ wheels our test car came with, but one of my colleges disagreed and thought they looked great, which is all the proof you need that these matters are subjective. I’ll leave you to make your own mind up. I do like the car’s aggressive makeup though, like the lower and wider grille, as well as the useful performance appendages including the rear spoiler and front splitter. On balance it’s a handsome car, but I would argue the Focus ST would win in a beauty contest.
Moving inside and it’s mostly good news. The Golf has always taken care of the driver when it comes to ergonomics and this generation is more driver-focussed than ever, with the 10-inch infotainment screen sitting high and angled slightly so you never need to move your head to look at it. And it’s blended with a high-res digital driver display which makes the new GTI feel about as modern as a sub-£35K car can be. Buying the DSG robs you of the chance of having the golf ball gear knob, so keep that in mind. Your fingers have to make do with a brushed aluminium drive selector, which is in keeping with the rest of the interior’s solid build quality and matches the flappy paddles on the steering wheel, but doesn’t look nearly as cool.
Regrettably the experience is slightly dampened by the odd encounter of cheap-feeling plastics in places like the door bins. When did this happen? The Golf GTI used to feel markedly plusher and better-appointed than any other hot hatch in the segment. The gap is definitely closing, and I can see a lot of customers paying the little bit extra for a Mercedes-AMG A 35 to benefit from its swankier cabin, not to mention the 50-odd bhp more poke.
So back to our question: is the Golf GTI still king, or has the crown been removed? This is a first drive piece, and on early impressions VW has done more than enough to appease the devotees. It’s certainly not a stutter in form like the Mk4 generation. The not very helpful answer is, I don’t think there is a true hot hatch king anymore. The segment has become so wide and varied - now including cars ranging from 200bhp to 400bhp, front wheel drive and AWD - that it’s not a fair question.
What the Golf GTI is, though, is the perfect all-rounder. While it would be trounced on the track by the Type R it’s still socially acceptable to drive one past the age of 35, and it handles better than the Focus ST. The build quality exceeds than of the Renault Megane Trophy and it has much more interior and exterior class than the Hyundai i30N. Each of these cars are better than the GTI in individual ways, but none offer the same complete package. I drove the GTI car for a few days and miss it dearly, which says a lot.
Model tested: Volkswagen Golf GTI DSG
Engine: 2-litre, 4-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Power: 242bhp, 370Nm
0-62mph: 6.3 seconds
Max speed: 155mph
MPG: 38.2 (combined)